Now in its third year, the Genre Bender event organized by City Arts has already become a fascinating incubator for new work, produced in ways that challenge the artists involved on multiple levels. It began as part of the City Arts Festival, which drew national and international talent together. After that first event in 2011, it became apparent to all involved that the Genre Bender model could strengthen the local artistic community and develop new work from local artists that none of them might have even considered before. To lead this effort, they appointed set-designer Jennifer Zeyl to curate the 2014 program, and she is back as curator for 2015.
Genre Bender works like this: The City Arts editorial staff gets together with the curator and generates a list of dozens of local artists of all disciplines. That list is refined based on who would be a strong collaborator and capable of stepping out of their usual idiom. Genre Bender is a performance event, but it is inclusive of disciplines that are not typically performative, which makes the roster representative of a more complete picture of the city’s creative community. The final ten are determined in five pairs, as the committee considers whose aesthetics and philosophies might spark something powerful.
In speaking to Zeyl and City Arts editor in chief Leah Baltus, both emphasize the importance of selecting artists who have no history of working together. Baltus states, “Somehow the duos we pick don’t know each other before the commission, which both boggles my mind and makes me so happy, because it’s proof that the collaborations are building bridges.” She also points out that some of these pairings have led to further fruitful collaborations.
That word—”collaboration,” and the related “cross-pollination”—is tossed around a great deal. In the art community, there is at times an almost fetishistic demand for this sort of work for the sake of its novelty, though the work often is experimental at best. It’s a little bit of a miracle that Genre Bender has been so successful, given all the factors involved, including a short time-frame to create and develop a work between near strangers.
The duos first meet in early December, leaving only a few months to create a completely original work. This makes the pacing fast and furious, working with each other, Zeyl and a design team. Zeyl provides support and feedback to ensure that the artists truly challenge themselves. There isn’t enough time to learn a new discipline, but many have talents that they aren’t always using in their typical practice, and this is the opportunity to let them shine.
“It really speaks to the versatility of the artists,” says Zeyl, who as a founder of Canoe Social Club is no stranger to developing spaces for creative work and encouraging innovation. But Canoe is ongoing and inclusive, whereas Genre Bender is a precise burst of ideas. It’s a demanding process for all involved, but Zeyl says of it, “It’s funnest thing I do all year.”
What’s coming in each performance is kept under wraps, allowing for surprises and for audiences to come in without a preconceived notion of what to expect from an artist, even if they are familiar with the artist’s work. Zeyl was able to say that several of the performances this year use video and digital components combined with the performance, and that they are all “wildly different.” Baltus mentioned that in deciding the list of participants this year, the committee was sure to include artists who could make full use of the theatre’s technical power, its large stage and deep proscenium. One duo is bringing in a whole crew of additional dancers to fill out the space. Zeyl is a veteran set designer, so she was also pleased to state that two of the pieces have developed scenic design.
When one also considers that Zeyl is known for encouraging work with meaningful commentary and a social justice aspect, the participant list makes a lot of sense, as its aesthetic intersections are matched by the broad mindfulness in these artists’ oeuvres. The pairings for 2015 (pulled verbatim from the City Arts blog) are:
Conceptual artist C. Davida Ingram & composer/performer Hanna Benn
Rapper Raz Simone & multimedia artist Justin Roberts
Photographer Steven Miller & theatrical superpower Sarah Rudinoff
Vocalist okanamodé SoulChilde & aerialist Lara Paxton
Poet Sarah Galvin & musician/philosopher David Nixon
I asked Zeyl to describe her reaction to some of the last year’s performances, just to give first-timers an idea of what to expect. She remarked on the charming tenderness of Ahamefule Oluo and ilvs strauss, whose performance was based on letters too personal to send. Marya Sea Kaminski and Mark Mitchell delivered a riotously funny one act play, allowing Mitchell to act for the first time in twenty years. She had the most to say about the gripping dance and recitation piece by Ezra Dickinson and Shaun Scott, which confronted race and class in America in sobering ways, including a representation of the Rodney King beating.
Zeyl said of watching Dickinson perform, “He was devastating. My heart would stop. The hair on my arms would stand on end.”
I fully expect that this crew of artists and thinkers will yield a similar array of laughter and meditation this weekend. These are artists who, despite their strong credentials, are still emerging on a national stage, so get an up-close look at them now in this truly unique experience.
Genre Bender 2015: Cosmic Hybrids
When: March 6 and 7, 8 PM
Where: The Cornish Playhouse (201 Mercer St)
Get tickets online. $20 per person. Ages 21+